Magistrates might take Beaufort council to court for pay hike

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Magistrates might take Beaufort council to court for pay hike

By KYLE PETERSON
kpeterson@beaufortgazette.com
Published Monday, November 14, 2011   |  419 Words  |  

A group of magistrate judges might take Beaufort County Council to court over a pay hike they say was implemented about three months late.

State law requires a pay raise for magistrates when a county's population tops 150,000, as Beaufort County's did during the 2010 Census.

Council approved the raise beginning this past July, when its new fiscal year began. Three magistrates-- Beth Prince, David Taub and Lawrence McElynn -- argue the raise should be effective March 22, when the new census figures became official.

The Finance Committee discussed the magistrates' request last month but declined to act. Several members said they could not vote to extend the raises when other county employees have not been given raises for years.

But an attorney representing the magistrates told council on Monday that's like comparing apples to oranges, because state law mandates the judicial raises.

"I respectfully submit to council that the statutory language is not contingent upon anything," said Butch Bowers, a Columbia attorney.

Bowers also presented a memo from Jean Toal, chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court, that argues a judge who accepts a salary other than specified by state law could be violating his or her oath of office or breaking the Canons of Judicial Conduct.

County attorney Josh Gruber countered that state law also describes council's budget process, and it precludes adding the additional salary in the middle of a budget year.

Council chairman Weston Newton argued that given the financial straits facing the county, it would be appropriate for council to pay the extra salary only if a court requires it.

For the 11 judges, the additional raise would cost the county about $20,000, but taxpayers might have to pay attorneys fees, too, if the county loses in court.

A motion by Councilwoman Laura Von Harten to grant the extra raise failed 8-3, with Von Harten and Councilmen Stu Rodman and Paul Sommerville voting "yes."

Bowers said the magistrates have 30 days to appeal the decision to the circuit court but said he would have to confer with the judges before confirming that they will file suit.

Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.

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